★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
My Name is Leon is the story of a little boy growing up in 1980s Britain with a white mum, and a black (now absent) dad. His mum, Carol, has just given birth to a new, white baby boy called Jake, who Leon thinks looks like a doll.
The blurb says something similar, and I’d been expecting a story much more racially fraught than it is. But it’s very subtle. The book’s through Leon’s nine-year-old eyes, so the ’80s politics – not just racism, but the IRA, hunger strikes, riots, police brutality and Royal weddings, too – is in the periphery. It’s a backdrop to Leon’s real struggles. His little world has bigger problems.
Yes – problems settling into a new foster home when his mum can no longer cope. But also where all his Action Men are.
One of the great things about My Name is Leon is that Kit de Waal tells the story through Leon without being gimmicky. The book’s in third person, which helps a lot. (At first, I found Emma Donaghue’s Room difficult because of the cutesy kid lingo.) I had to check though. It’s so authentically child-like that I hadn’t really registered what voice it was in as I was reading.
So, we’re totally immersed in Leon’s world, yet able to observe and understand what’s going on as adults. This is both brilliantly funny and, sometimes, desperately sad. Leon’s innocent view of the world is so charming. And the way he sees the adults who enter his life and the things they do is wonderful. He’s so observant and brutally honest in what he thinks of all these busy-body grown-ups – they smell weird, or have funny hair, or wobbly tummies, and none are as beautiful as his mum.
Sylvia is turning pages and paying no attention and this goes on for ages, taking the photographs out and reading the address on the back and talking about where they were taken and where they lived and who is thin and who is fat and who is still alive and who is dead and who was handsome and who’s got no teeth now.
The book’s full of passages like this that drop you straight back into your own childhood memories. (Going through envelopes upon envelopes of fuzzy holiday snaps is a particularly distinct and painful one, for me – so I really felt for Leon on this one…)
My Name is Leon is a compassionate and tender story that’s full of hope. And yes, you might have a few sniffles as you tag along with Leon, but I reckon you’ll find a lot of chuckles to be had, too.
If you like books with an unusual narrator (like Room, Elizabeth is Missing, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), you might want to get your hands on a copy.
(And a big thank you to Brum Radio Book Show who sent me mine!)